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Big Oil’s ‘Wokewashing’ Is the New Climate Science Denialism

Academic researchers say the fossil fuel industry engages in 'discourses of delay' to divert attention away from the crisis.

Climate
'Discourses of delay' by the fossil fuel companies. Left: Chevron; middle: BP and Shell; right: ExxonMobil. Photograph: Twitter

By Amy Westervelt

This story originally appeared in The Guardian and is published here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of news outlets strengthening coverage of the climate story.

ExxonMobil has been touting its commitment to "reducing carbon emissions with innovative energy solutions". Chevron would like to remind you it is keeping the lights on during this dark time. BP is going #NetZero, but is also very proud of the "digital innovations" on its new, enormous oil drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile Shell insists it really supports women in traditionally male-dominated jobs.

A casual social media user might get the impression the fossil fuel industry views itself as a social justice warrior, fighting on behalf of the poor, the marginalized, and women – at least based on its marketing material in recent years.

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Karen Lewis' neighborhood in East Baltimore is considered the city's most extreme 'urban heat island'. Her home is in the middle of a set of row houses where stagnant hot air gets trapped indoors. Some days are so hot she has trouble breathing. Greg Kahn / The Guardian

By Sushma Subramanian

Baltimore is suing major oil and gas companies for spurring the climate crisis and the rising temperatures that have an outsized impact on low-income, urban areas

For years, an elderly man stood as a regular fixture around his East Baltimore neighborhood for the way he would wander the streets in the summer, trying to stay outside his sweltering home until nightfall.

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PavloBaliukh / iStock / Getty Images

Through net metering programs, homeowners who have installed solar energy systems can get utility credits for any electricity their panels generate during the day that isn't used to power home systems. These credits can be "cashed in" to offset the cost of any grid electricity used at night.

Where net metering is available, solar panels have a shorter payback period and yield a higher return on investment. Without this benefit, you only save on power bills when using solar energy directly, and surplus generation is lost unless you store it in a solar battery. However, net metering gives you the option of selling any excess electricity that is not consumed within your home.

Generally, you will see more home solar systems in places with favorable net metering laws. With this benefit, going solar becomes an attractive investment even for properties with minimal daytime consumption. Homeowners can turn their roofs into miniature power plants during the day, and that generation is subtracted from their nighttime consumption.

What Is Net Metering?

Net metering is a billing arrangement in which surplus energy production from solar panels is tracked by your electricity provider and subtracted from your monthly utility bill. When your solar power system produces more kilowatt-hours of electricity than your home is consuming, the excess generation is fed back into the grid.

For homeowners with solar panels, the benefits of net metering include higher monthly savings and a shorter payback period. Utility companies also benefit, since the excess solar electricity can be supplied to other buildings on the same electric grid.

If a power grid relies on fossil fuels, net metering also increases the environmental benefits of solar power. Even if a building does not have an adequate area for rooftop solar panels, it can reduce its emissions by using the surplus clean energy from other properties.

How Net Metering Works

There are two general ways net metering programs work:

  1. The surplus energy produced by your solar panels is measured by your utility company, and a credit is posted to your account that can be applied to future power bills.
  2. The surplus energy produced by your solar panels is measured by your home's electricity meter. Modern power meters can measure electricity flow in both directions, so they tick up when you pull from the grid at night and count down when your solar panels are producing an excess amount of electricity.

In either scenario, at the end of the billing period, you will only pay for your net consumption — the difference between total consumption and generation. This is where the term "net metering" comes from.

How Does Net Metering Affect Your Utility Bill?

Net metering makes solar power systems more valuable for homeowners, as you can "sell" any extra energy production to your utility company. However, it's important to understand how charges and credits are managed:

  • You can earn credits for your surplus electricity, but utility companies will not cut you a check for the power you provide. Instead, they will subtract the credits from your power bills.
  • If your net metering credit during the billing period is higher than your consumption, the difference is rolled over to the next month.
  • Some power companies will roll over your credit indefinitely, but many have a yearly expiration date that resets your credit balance.

With all of this in mind, it is possible to reduce your annual electricity cost to zero. You can accumulate credit with surplus generation during the sunny summer months, and use it during winter when solar generation decreases.

You will achieve the best results when your solar power system has just the right capacity to cover your annual home consumption. Oversizing your solar array is not recommended, as you will simply accumulate a large unused credit each year. In other words, you cannot overproduce and charge your power company each month.

Some power companies will let you pick the expiration date of your annual net metering credits. If you have this option, it's wise to set the date after winter has ended. This way, you can use all the renewable energy credits you accumulated during the summer.

Is Net Metering Available Near You?

Net metering offers a valuable incentive for homeowners to switch to solar power, but these types of programs are not available everywhere. Net metering laws can change depending on where you live.

In the U.S., there are mandatory net metering laws in 38 states and Washington, D.C. Most states without a mandate have power companies that voluntarily offer the benefit in their service areas. South Dakota and Tennessee are the only two states with no version of net metering or similar programs.

If net metering is available in your area, you will be credited for your surplus energy in one of two ways:

  • Net metering at retail price: You get full credit for each kilowatt-hour sent to the grid. For example, if you're charged 16 cents per kWh consumed, you'll get a credit of 16 cents per kWh exported. This type of net metering is required by law in 29 states.
  • Net metering at a reduced feed-in tariff: Surplus electricity sent to the grid is credited at a lower rate. For example, you may be charged 16 cents per kWh for consumption but paid 10 cents per kWh exported. Feed-in tariffs and other alternative programs are used in 17 of the states where retail-rate net metering is not mandatory.

Note: This is just a simplified example — the exact kWh retail price and solar feed-in tariff will depend on your electricity plan.

The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) is an excellent resource if you want to learn more about net metering and other solar power incentives in your state. You can also look for information about solar incentives by visiting the official websites of your state government and utility company.

Other Financial Incentives for Going Solar

Net metering policies are one of the most effective incentives for solar power. However, there are other financial incentives that can be combined with net metering to improve your ROI:

  • The federal solar tax credit lets you claim 26% of your solar installation costs as a tax deduction. For example, if your solar installation had a cost of $10,000, you can claim $2,600 on your next tax declaration. This benefit is available everywhere in the U.S.
  • State tax credits may also be available depending on where you live, and they can be claimed in addition to the federal incentive.
  • Solar rebates are offered by some state governments and utility companies. These are upfront cash incentives subtracted directly from the cost of your solar PV system.

In addition to seeking out solar incentives available to you, you should compare quotes from multiple installers before signing a solar contract. This will ensure you're getting the best deal available and help you avoid overpriced offers and underpriced, low-quality installations. You can start getting quotes from top solar companies near you by filling out the 30-second form below.

Frequently Asked Questions: Solar Net Metering

Why is net metering bad?

When managed correctly, net metering is beneficial for electricity consumers and power companies. There have been cases in which power grids lack the capacity to handle large amounts of power coming from homes and businesses. However, this is an infrastructure issue, not a negative aspect of net metering itself.

In places with a high percentage of homes and businesses using solar panels, surplus generation on sunny days can saturate the grid. This can be managed by modernizing the grid to handle distributed solar power more effectively with load management and energy storage systems.

How does net metering work?

With net metering, any electricity your solar panels produce that isn't used to power your home is fed into your local power grid. Your utility company will pay you for this power production through credits that can be applied to your monthly energy bills.

Can you make money net metering?

You can reduce your power bills with net metering, using surplus solar generation to compensate for your consumption when you can't generate solar power at night and on cloudy days. However, most power companies will not pay you for surplus production once your power bill has dropped to $0. Normally, that credit will be rolled over, to be used in months where your solar panels are less productive.

On very rare occasions, you may be paid for the accumulated balance over a year. However, this benefit is offered by very few electric companies and is subject to limitations.

Oil sheen is seen with vessels assisting near the source of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill on July 18, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana. Mario Tama / Getty Images

By Chris McGreal

After a century of wielding extraordinary economic and political power, America's petroleum giants face a reckoning for driving the greatest existential threat of our lifetimes.

An unprecedented wave of lawsuits, filed by cities and states across the US, aim to hold the oil and gas industry to account for the environmental devastation caused by fossil fuels – and covering up what they knew along the way.

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President Donald Trump hands coal miners the pen he used to sign a bill eliminating environmental regulations on the mining industry at the White House in Washington, D.C., on February 16, 2017. Nicholas Kamm / AFP / Getty Images

By Oliver Milman

Art Sullivan is considered something of a political heretic by other coal miners in south-western Pennsylvania, where a wave of support for Donald Trump based upon his flamboyant promises of a resurgence in coal helped propel the Republican to the U.S. presidency.

"Many of my coal miner friends voted for him," said Sullivan, who has spent 54 years as a coal miner and, more latterly, consultant to a struggling industry. "They were deceived. Trump had no plan, no concept of how to resurrect the coal industry. My friends were lied to."

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A woman marks down her vote on a ballot for the Democratic presidential primary election at a polling place on Super Tuesday, March 3, 2020 in Herndon, Virginia. Samuel Corum / Getty Images

By Oliver Milman

The climate crisis is set to be a significant factor in a U.S. presidential election for the first time, with new polling showing a clear majority of American voters want decisive action to deal with the threats posed by global heating.

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Activists gather in John Marshall Park for the Global Climate Strike protests on September 20, 2019 in Washington, DC. Samuel Corum / Getty Images

By Alexandra Villarreal

As West coast wildfires color the skies dystopian red and orange and an aggressive hurricane season batters the U.S. Gulf coast, college students are demanding their schools take bold action to address the climate crisis.

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Any realistic hopes of averting disastrous climate change rests heavily upon the outcome of the November 2020 election. John McColgan / Wikimedia Commons

By Oliver Milman

This story was originally published in The Guardian on July 27, 2020.

It was a balmy June day in 2017 when Donald Trump took to the lectern in the White House Rose Garden to announce the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, the only comprehensive global pact to tackle the spiraling crisis.

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An oil well pumps in Long Beach, California. Proximity to a well and the level of production were found to be significantly associated with poor birth outcomes. David McNew / Getty Images

By Nina Lakhani

Living near active oil and gas wells during pregnancy increases the risk of low-birthweight babies, especially in rural areas, according to the largest study of its kind.

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President Donald Trump delivers a speech before signing an order rolling back climate protections against coal on March 28, 2017 in Washington, D.C. JIM WATSON / AFP / Getty Images

By Emily Holden

The Trump administration is diligently weakening US environment protections even amid a global pandemic, continuing its rollback as the November election approaches.

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Facade with sign and logo at regional headquarters of computing company Microsoft in the Silicon Valley, Mountain View, California on May 3, 2019. Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images

By Oscar Schwartz

Microsoft drew widespread praise in January this year after Brad Smith, the company's president, announced their climate "moonshot."

While other corporate giants, such as Amazon and Walmart, were pledging to go carbon neutral, Microsoft vowed to go carbon negative by 2030, meaning they would be removing more carbon from the atmosphere than they produced.

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Tourists watch and photograph the floodlit popular destination Three Sisters during a bushfire on an unknown date in Jamison Valley, Blue Mountains National Park, Australia. Andrew Merry / Moment / Getty Images

By Michael Mann

After years studying the climate, my work has brought me to Sydney where I'm studying the linkages between climate change and extreme weather events.

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By Pam Radtke Russell in New Orleans

Local TV weather forecasters have become foot soldiers in the war against climate misinformation. Over the past decade, a growing number of meteorologists and weathercasters have begun addressing the climate crisis either as part of their weather forecasts, or in separate, independent news reports to help their viewers understand what is happening and why it is important.

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